Everyone knows how to play Lich, right? The hero is notorious for being the introductory character for new players, and he’s considered to have one of the lowest skill floors in the game. Despite that he is surprisingly effective, even in the higher level pubs.
Currently Lich can boast an almost 54% overall winrate, with 54.55% in the 5k+ bracket, making him the 4th most successful hero in top level pubs. He is also popular in the pro-scene, with many teams choosing to pick him early in the draft for his flexibility and unconditional usefulness. So what exactly led to this prolonged dominance in all levels of play?
Importance of the laning stage
Laning was always important, but the current patch has made it even more evident. On top of it, the overall growth of the skill level of players makes early, small differences between power levels of lane opponents a lot more noticeable.
Weaker lanes are being punished harder than they ever were, and that is not entirely patch-related. Professional players are a lot better at exploiting any weaknesses and mistakes of their opponents, and this has directly translated into pubs as well. The game became more aggressive and tense from the very beginning.
Lich makes up for early game weaknesses and almost guarantees at least a draw in any given lane. He can outright ensures a lane victory, making for a smoother progression to the mid game. At the same time, he also guarantees his own level progression, staying relevant for the most of the game. The fact that he also has a very clear choice between an aggressive spell and a strong defensive one makes him incredibly flexible and capable of both being an extra source of reliable damage and a defensive backline support.
Mid game transition
[missing skill: lich-sacrifice-5136] is an amazing spell to control lanes, but it alone can’t win the game — it merely enables the hero. Whereas the early level expenditures are mostly non-negotiable, with 1-1-3-1 build by level 6 in the absolute majority of scenarios, the latter progression is entirely dependant on what your team truly needs.
In fact, at level 7 [missing skill: lich-sacrifice-5136] is not mandatory either — by this point the lane stage is almost guaranteed to be over and the extra experience you get is less noticeable. Moreover, level 3 [missing skill: lich-sacrifice-5136] is often enough to sustain the hero mana-wise in-between fights.
There is an argument of rushing for level 15 and 20 talents or level 2 ultimate and sacrifice can help with it, but depending on the situation, you might actually need some extra damage or protection for team engagements early on.
As a rule of thumb, an extra level in [missing skill: lich-sacrifice-5136] at level 7 is never a bad idea, but make sure you don’t overdo it, which creates opportunities for your enemies to split-push. And recognize that if your team is pressured, you might not need a slight power increase.
The big question then is whether to max out [missing skill: lich-ice-armor-5135] or Frost Blast first and the answer to it depends entirely on your and enemy team compositions.
The former scales rather insignificantly, but it scales with an armor mechanic that scales incredibly well in itself. The latter can become a rather powerful nuke, but the utility from it doesn’t change in any way, so it can be redundant if your team has enough damage already. Extra armor doesn’t really do much against some of the more popular magic burst heroes either, so if you are facing Necrophos or Pugna as the enemy main core, going for more damage is a better option.
The consensus is that Lich is weak in the late game and in a vacuum it would be true. Only one of his skills actually scales as the game progresses, and his ultimate is generally easy to avoid or even ignore.
In reality, Lich has some similarities to Alchemist and Bounty Hunter — he allows himself or his team to enter the late game on a significantly different footing from their opponents. Properly played Lich will outlevel enemy supports, getting access to some decent talents. He will also allow his core to outlevel and outfarm the cores of his enemy. Finally, the first two combined should ensure his own economy, both through the level 20 +120 GPM talent and the fact that early engagements should have gone the way of his team.
Access to better items is not to be underestimated, especially with the additions of the recent years. Apart from Force Staff, which is always a good item to have, you can address specific threats for relatively small sum — Glimmer Cape is still a good save against anything magical, while Lotus Orb can be used to deal with hexes and other debuffs from the enemy.
Another often overlooked benefit of having Lich on your team is his ability to stop or at least delay split-pushes. Towers have relatively big HP pools early on, hence the extra armor will provide a ton of extra EHP. It allows your team to react better and also messes the timings of the enemy split-pushers, preventing them from snowballing the game.
One of the biggest recent changes to the hero was the removal of microstun from the Chain Frost, so he can no longer prevent channeling spells or teleports. It didn’t fundamentally change the hero, but made him noticeably weaker in very specific matchups, so keep that in mind.
Despite his apparent strengths, Lich still remains relatively unpopular hero in all brackets, but the 5k+ one, where his popularity rises to 21.90%. It indicates the mindset differences between the hardcore and casual players — while former mostly derive pleasure from winning their games, the latter are in the game for the fun factor.
Neither of these approaches is the “correct” one and everyone should answer to themselves what group of player they belong to. Lich is not a very fun hero to play, and his impact is hard to notice: 10 minutes of complete lane dominance coupled with massive EHP increases for your teammates pale in terms of flashiness against a single black hole from Enigma. Such is the reality of Dota and in this reality Lich is a game winning hero and will remain such for at least another month.